On two separate occasions in the past six months I have been encouraged to run for office. Well, not me specifically, but me along with the roomful of people attending the same lectures as me. Still, it does tend to give one pause.
The speakers, on these two separate occasions, were from complete opposite ends of the political spectrum. What’s more they were speaking for different reasons, and on completely different topics. But in both instances the speakers were encouraging all of us in the audience to dive into political life. The sentiment behind the encouragement came from the same motivation: a near begging of us engaged citizens to “do something” in the current political climate.
On the more recent occasion, it was George Weigel – noted Catholic author and scholar – he of “unofficial biographer of Pope Saint John Paul II” fame – encouraging a room full of young adults gathered at the Catholic Information Center’s Leonine Forum Fellowship in Washington, DC to consider political life.
During Q & A after the talk, I asked him a question along the lines of, “You say the Church is doing a poor job of communicating the message of its relevance to the wider world, and I think we can all pretty much agree on that. What role do lay people have in remedying this?”
His response was to the point: “More Catholics need to see politics as a vocation.”
Is it really a vocation?
Now, I know I am not new to this question. German sociologist Max Weber gave an entire speech called Politics as a Vocation, which addresses the calling to politics from a philosophical, though not a religious, aspect. But It is the theological perspective which is where my interest lands (and maybe yours does, too).
I have written at length about vocations and we already know the emphasis the church puts on the role of both religious and lay people in the body of the Church to carry out its mission. The Church also definitely addresses participation in social and civic life and has well-established positions on matters related to civic life like the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity found in the Compendium of Social Doctrine. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s doctrinal note, “The Participation of Catholics in Political Life” is also a wonderful treatment of the topic.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church also succinctly illuminates the political role of the apostolate:
“It is not the role of the Pastors of the Church to intervene directly in the political structuring and organization of social life. This task is part of the vocation of the lay faithful, acting on their own initiative with their fellow citizens. Social action can assume various concrete forms. It should always have the common good in view and be in conformity with the message of the Gospel and the teaching of the Church. It is the role of the laity ‘to animate temporal realities with Christian commitment, by which they show that they are witnesses and agents of peace and justice.’” (2442)
So in other words, yes – politics is very much a part of the lay Catholics’ life. And certainly for some it can, and should, become a secular vocation. But keep in mind that our true vocation is to become saints; the field of work we choose is more appropriately called a career or a profession.
What does this look like?
I spoke with my friend Fr. Charles, a priest in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, about what it means for Catholics to engage in politics.
Not everyone will be called to run for elected office, he says, and certainly most people will not consider politics their calling in the course of their lives. Even so, says Fr. Charles, “God wants, for sure, Catholics to be involved in politics.”
As Catholics, we should feel called to have concern for our society, and a desire to improve it. Most often our concern takes the form of voting in elections. When it comes to participating in elections, he says, “Not caring is not Christian.”
For Fr. Charles, it is not that there are Catholic politicians – but politicians who are Catholic. What is the distinction?
“A politician has to be responsible for her decisions,” he says.
A politician should not use the Church as a shield for certain issues. The responsibility for political decision making lands firmly with the lay faithful, and not with the Church. There are certainly doctrines the Church espouses, but the Church itself is not a political body in the sense of one which creates and carries out public policy.
Again, the dissemination of this teaching into public life is up to the lay faithful to carry out. And certainly on many modern issues, like immigration and care for the environment, Catholics will often have differing interpretations of Church teaching. In this way, any political decision should be made because it is the right choice, and what is best for society, and not purely because “the Catholic Church says so.”
Fr. Charles believes too many Catholics find the idea of entering political life daunting, but that we shouldn’t be afraid of politics. “We need people to enter political life. If they don’t, others will take their place. Without morals, faith and the right understanding of the human person, decisions will be made because we decided it was too difficult to be present in the political arena. And an understanding of the human person is what the Catholic faith offers, and what we can bring to society.”
Keeping God at the center
If you are considering entering political life, ask yourself, why? Is it for personal gain or glory, or to make a real difference? Where does your heart truly lay, and are you willing to pay the price to stand by your beliefs?
Those who feel called to enter public life would do well to pray about it. Prayer is always beneficial when discerning any decision or calling. Ask God to help you understand your own heart and motivation in seeking a public position, whether it is on a citizen committee or a senate seat. And when you are decided, ask God to strengthen your resolve to do the right thing in every situation. Seek to do His will – and not the easy or popular thing.
St. Thomas More
One could also pray to St. Thomas More, one of our most famous politician-saints. As his life shows us, the real challenge of being a politician with faith is actually sticking to that faith in the face of extreme adversity.
Arguably, a politician – whether operating at the global or local level – will face many temptations to trade his or her faith for secular glory. Money, power, access, and influence all flow easily in the political world; if one makes these one’s gods, there will be no room for Jesus.
In St. Thomas More, we see an example of a politician who stuck to his beliefs until the end, to the point of death. Execution for religious beliefs is less common, at least in the US, these days (thankfully). But there is still a parallel with the possibility of being socially outcast for one’s beliefs. Entering political life – and doing so with true Catholic faith – risks alienation from “polite society.” In Washington, there are not as many cocktail parties for pro-life activists as there are for abortion rights activists. If that doesn’t bother you, that’s great! The world needs more leaders like you.
The Christian life in the public sphere
I will leave you with two pieces of scripture related to leading a Christian life in the public sphere. In the beatitudes, Jesus tells us, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” [Mathew 5:11-12]. And then: “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first” [John 15:18].
What we do here on earth passes away. And we are called to think toward our eternal goals of Heaven and life with God. Every one of us has the opportunity to lead and preach the gospel, including by entering politics. If this is your calling, embrace it. You have the precedent of the saints and the clarity of the Church’s teaching and tradition to guide you. I do believe that our country, and our world, would be a better place if more Catholics entered the political life, to serve as those “witnesses and agents of peace and justice.”